Category Archives: Labour

Nova Huta: Krakow’s Stalinist ‘Workers’ Paradise’

Nowa-Huta1949Nova Huta was built in a Poland dominated by Stalin to be an exemplar of urban planning, a workers’ paradise.

Some say also to be one-in-the-eye for a literary, intellectual Krakow.

It’s also all about steel. Poland ‘refused’ aid from the U.S. through the Marshall Plan, turning instead to a 1948 economic agreement with the USSR to provide it 1.5-2 million tons of steel per year. In 1949 the site of Nova Huta was decided on, to be built on 11 thousand hectares of rich soil and three villages. I am writing in more passive voice throughout this post, because agency is complex though ultimately I suppose it was mostly about Stalin.  This land was taken, as the book (finally a book in English with more context, even if only a write-up of an exhibition held here in the lovely little museum that used to belong to the scouts, with chapters written by the curators Paweł Jagło and Maria Lempert) states:

sometimes without financial compensation. The investment was realized against the will of inhabitants of the villages near Krakow, who felt deeply harmed by this decision. (17)

This immense steelworks, named after Lenin, started operation on 22 July 1954 using Soviet technology. After 1956, more modern technology in the form of machines designed by Tedeusz Senzimir (American of Polish descent) was brought in. Senzimir — who workers wanted to name the factory after in 1989, and did briefly. Now of course, through the glories of global capital, it is Arcellor-Mittal Poland.

Architecture (Paweł Jagło)

It is curious to me, coming from a country where social housing was always a victory for our people, to read the inner conflict and diffidence in descriptions of this place imposed and in many ways representative of outside oppression despite its positive role in the lives of so many. Interesting how this then folds into architectural and social critiques of such density of worker housing, and the underlying ideals of this kind of utopian planning. Paweł Jagło writes:

‘The winning design, which was a creative comment on the Renaissance idea of the ideal city, was submitted by Tadeusz Ptasycki (1908-1980)… Housing estates designed for 4-5 thousand people were built around public utilities and services like kindergartens, schools, playgrounds and parks. Services (shops etc.) were located on ground floors of residential building by main streets.

Each housing estate became a well-defined self-contained ‘mini-city’ within the bigger urban establishment of Nowa Huta.’ (23)

Look at this model, amazing:

Miasto
General Plan of Nowa Huta, a model, 1957.

The dominant style of that time, force-fed to the people by the Communist regime, was that of Socialist Realism….a historicising mannerism based on the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (23)

nowa-huta-plac-centralny-1950s-01

A view from the central plaza now, though not from the optimum height:

Nova Huta

I am puzzled by some sentences, that again imply that the imposition of style and form was not as simple as it might look, but perhaps is just to ensure that the architects are not let completely off the hook.

Nowa huta’s socialist realist architecture was criticised for ideological reasons. Experts were of the justifiable opinion that architects gave in to the authorities too easily. (28)

Honestly though, it’s quite all right this place, even on a muggy afternoon in the rain. And it is not, after all, all of a sameness. The first estates, built between 1949 and 1951, ‘were designed in the fashion of pre-war working class estates in Warsaw to save time and money.’ Not too long after, the style ‘allowed’ for architecture was expanded:

Another feature of the new style were greater spaces between buildings…as a result, the estates were partly mini-cities and partly gardens.

This place is indeed full of trees, plants, green. Almost more pleasant than the sound of the modernist buildings (like the Swedish building, which we didn’t go see because of the rain) ‘in the Szklane Domy Estate, following the style of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation of Marseilles.'(25)

I really hate Le Corbusier. He would have been confused about where the servants were supposed to live.

Walking around we found the theatre:

Nova Huta

The cinema (now a Tesco, yay capitalism. Though I won’t deny queues suck and shelves with food you can buy are good things):

Nova Huta

The stylish cafe for workers, where we had a nice meal:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

We passed men playing chess on the tables provided in the park along the main boulevard, despite the rain:

Nova Huta

The housing — and people who obviously love and care for it as evidenced by their balconies:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Supposed to hold 100,000 people, the 100,000th person moved in to Nova Huta at the end of 1959.  Yet the steel plant continued to expand and so the housing for the workers expanded also (that at least is refreshing). Four more estates were built in 1968, three others along an old airstrip in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s.

Curiously enough there is mention of gentrification, put forward by a sociologist named Jacek Gądecki, which I am most curious about. But that is to return to later.

Also curious — or not — is the way that Nova Huta became a base for the toppling of Poland’s communist regime. Initially it crystallized around religion.

Defence of the Cross – Paweł Jagło

Jagło writes of the famous incident — called the Defence of the Cross — that began a long history of simmering revolt and rebellion in Nova Huta:

Defence of the Cross in Teatralne housing estate was the first major rebellion of the people of Nowa Huta against communist authorities. (30)

It took place in 1960, after agitation to get their own church (hardly surprising the original development was designed without one, though several were located nearby). Finally promised a church, the bureaucracy back-pedaled and delayed. A cross was placed on the location, but new plans were put forward to build a school instead. As construction crews came to remove the cross, women defended it and thus began days of mass confrontation. The new, amazingly modernist church called the Lord’s Ark was built as a result further down the road, but eventually a church was built here too, and a cross remains as a reminder.

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Another focus of anger was Lenin’s Statue, put up in Plaz Centralny.

Lenin’s Statue – Paweł Jagło

Marian Konieczny created this quite amazing hulking beetle-browed statue of Lenin (reminding me immensely of Israel Singer’s description of him in The Brothers Ashkenazi), and it was erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth on 20th April, 1970.

ybGyoZx

Lenin lived in Krakow for a few years of his exile, and we had spent some time in his footsteps during our time there. It is full of both irony and tragedy to me that his statue should become a symbol of a regime of very real oppression, a lightening rod for anger and resentment. Nova Huta’s residents both mocked and attempted to destroy it in many creative ways — trying to shoot the head off with a light canon, spraying it with Valerian drops to encourage cats to defecate on statue, placing old rubber boots and a bike in front with a sign reading ‘Here’s some old shoes and a bike, now out of Nowa Huta, take a hike!’ Someone tried to blow it up, succeeding only in damaging one of the legs while blowing out windows all around it and injuring a number of people. Bricks and stones and paint were thrown.

Authorities removed Lenin’s statue on 10th December 1989.

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Eventually it was bought by a Swedish millionaire named Big Bengt Erlandsson, who took it to the High Chaparral Theme park in southern Sweden.

A pause here. Because we need one.

Anti-communist opposition – Paweł Jagło

In 1979 a group started the ‘Christian Community of Working People’, who began publishing a samizdat magazine Nova Huta Cross. This was a beginning of the intertwined resistance movements, bringing together Catholicism and trade unionism. There is a look at Solidarity here, which I find fascinating, but necessarily very simplified and brief.

After the beginning strikes at Gdansk shipyard, a strike was called at Nowa Huta and a branch of Solidarity formed. In 1980 they formed the Steelworkers’ Working Committee. I’m sure it did more than bring crosses (all consecrated in the Lord’s Ark Church) and banners into all departments of the Steelworks, but this is what is highlighted here. On 13th December 1981 martial law was introduced, Nowa Huta declared a strike. Three days later the plant was ‘pacified’. (41) Continuing demonstrations through 1982 and 1983 were followed by raids and repressing. Another strike in April 1988 was suppressed, but all of this was part of the build up towards 1989 and regime change. Jagło writes:

‘And so, Nova Huta slowly began to rid herself of the ‘socialist city’ tag. The change of image continues to this day.’ (42)

I am not sure what I make of that.

Myths – Maria Lempert

This is the final section, very brief but quite illuminating I think, in showing the swirls of contention around such a project. :

Myth 1 –Nova Huta built in place of poverty-stricken villages to improve the lives of residents. (They were quite all right thank you)

Myth 2 – it was a ‘socialist godless city’. (They were quite religious and god-fearing thank you)

Myth 3 – the steelworks polluted Krakow and caused depreciation of historic monuments. (There are lots of other factories polluting Krakow, given weather patterns, Nova Huta’s steelworks are mostly polluting Nova Huta)

Myth 4 -the most common and enduring myth of all, wherever you may go:

and the most deeply rooted in the minds of Cracovians is the opinion that Nova Huta was and still is the most dangerous of all of Krakow’s districts, full of social pathology typical of areas populated by the working class. (50)

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There is much more to be explored, I hope I have the chance to do so one day. Particularly as this connects to worker housing elsewhere like the homes built for Katowice’s miners at Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec.

That Poland has gone for Ronald Reagan as a new hero after whom the central should be named perhaps embodies much of what is going wrong now…

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine might have been one of the most amazing things we saw, yet given the volume of visitors we were rushed through the caverns like small puffs of wind. Hard on the heels of one group and with another close behind, we raced through long tunnels, and clustered around sculptures trying to get our photographs in before the guide finished speaking and rushed us to the next place. They even rushed us through the gift shop — located in the second most spectacular cavern, in which we had 5 minutes exactly to stare in wonder and to make purchases.

From the UNESCO World Heritage Site:

The deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka and Bochnia has been mined since the 13th century. This major industrial undertaking has royal status and is the oldest of its type in Europe. The site is a serial property consisting of Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines and Wieliczka Saltworks Castle. The Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines illustrate the historic stages of the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to the 20th centuries: both mines have hundreds of kilometers of galleries with works of art, underground chapels and statues sculpted in the salt, making a fascinating pilgrimage into the past. The mines were administratively and technically run by Wieliczka Saltworks Castle, which dates from the medieval period and has been rebuilt several times in the course of its history.

Yet no nutshell can contain, nor rushed over-large group tour quite ruin, the miles of corridors:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The strange doors and carvings (reminding me of how I always imagined Moria):

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The strange figures, some of nationalist bent,

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

others depictions of miners, this of the brave mad men who set alight the clouds of methane that would form in pockets here:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

My favourite jaunty labourer:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Copernicus:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

many religious scenes:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Everywhere testaments to the faith of the miners — and the dangerous nature of their work

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

And the strange formations of the salt itself, in little icicles, what they called here spaghetti:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Seamed and shiny smooth along the walls, marked with the tools of those who worked here:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Puffed and popcorned in places

Wieliczka Salt Mine

And then the grandeur of the large chamber

Wieliczka Salt Mine

it’s salt chandeliers

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Also the underground ‘lake’

Wieliczka Salt Mine

and the final chamber (shorn of stalls and cash registers and milling faintly desperate crowds:

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Worth, so worth a visit, but what I wouldn’t have given to traverse it a little more slowly, with a few less people.

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Nikiszowiec: Housing Polish Miners part 1

In Nikiszowiec, the housing is terribly terribly permanent. Coming from a place where company housing was built, picked up, moved, rebuilt, swallowed by pits, this seems very strange. It has all the weight of New Lanark, if not quite the grace. It is solid in red brick, windows, doors and balconies picked out in bright red paint and wonderful details built into each and every facade.

It is beautiful. I know that does not mean it is necessarily a beautiful place to live. It does have a vaguely institutional feel, like the Peabody estates in London, which are from much the same time period.

From a local guidebook, Katowice in Your Pocket:

Built between 1908 and 1912 to house workers in the backyard of their place of employment – the large smoke-churning Wieczorek (formerly ‘Giesche’) coal mine – the enclosed residential complex of Nikiszowiec is composed of six compact four-sided three-storey blocks with inner courtyards. Distinguished by its uniformity of style – red brick buildings accented with red-painted windowframing, and narrow streets joined by handsome arcades – the neighbourhood was designed by Georg and Emil Zillman of Berlin-Charlottenburg to be a completely self-sufficient community for 1,000 workers with a school, hospital, police station, post office, swimming pool, bakery and church. Thanks to WWI and the subsequent Silesian Uprisings – St. Anne’s Church (Pl. Wyzwolenia 21) wasn’t able to be finished until 1927, but it became the crowning glory of the neighbourhood as soon as it was.

There is almost nothing written about them online in English, a fragment from google books notes that the Zillman’s were inspired by worker’s housing built by Krupp, and just as paternalistic. It is still owned by the company, but has become the subject of town regeneration and an attempt to get it declared a UNESCO heritage site. This explains both some of the crispness and the roughness around the edges, which I confess I liked very much.

A model of the development as a whole:

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec: Public Spaces:

A large central square, with church, hall, pubs, shops, cafes:

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Each courtyard had room for ovens, playgrounds, animals…

Nikiszowiec

Arches, and long beautiful streets. We heard they are normally filled with children, but weekends they are more for the tourists. The locals eyed us with indifference if not annoyance, and traces of an array of opinions about just why we thought this should be worthy of visiting at all:

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

The ‘Naive Art’ fair just starting as we left:

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec Details

One rumour goes that every arch is different, and these differences were introduced to ensure that drunk miners always found their way home to the correct door…

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec Life

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Graffiti that means ‘fuck the police’, though an alternative explanation is that it means something like Put Your Windows in Your Basement from the days of a rumour that the police were raiding people looking for pirated copies of Windows.

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec

Nikiszowiec Work:

And finally the mine itself:

Nikiszowiec

Building community, building housing…and this is only the first of the two complexes of worker housing the Zillman’s built. The other, Giszowiec, is completely different and also for another post.

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Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.

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Day 8: Sheep shearing and the beauty of labour

My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.

Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.

Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.

It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.

I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.

He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.

It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.

In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.

Thank you.

The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.

Farm 1.8

The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.

I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.

The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.

That made me a little queasy I confess.

T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.

Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.

Farm 1.8

He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.

We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.

And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day

Farm 1.7

Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.

Farm 1: Sheep And Beautiful Gloucestershire

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Fighting for Change

Sherwood Anderson on the Romance of Industry

Sherwood Anderson - Poor WhiteSherwood Anderson published Poor White in 1920, but it feels as though it is from an earlier era (and describes one sure enough). I haven’t read anything else by him, haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio though it is the one on all the lists of American classics…It centers on this guy:

Hugh McVey was born in a little hole of a town stuck on a mud bank on the western shore of the Mississippi River in the State of Missouri. It was a miserable place in which to be born.

But then

In his fourteenth year and when the boy was on the point of sinking into the sort of animal-like stupor in which his father had lived, something happened to him.

It’s all too easy sinking into animal-like stupor, lying on a riverbank. He gets a job at a railroad station, stays with the station master there and falls under the influence of the station master’s wife, who has grand ideas:

When Sarah grew into young womanhood and went about among the young people in the new country, she heard much talk of mortgages and of the difficulty of making ends meet, but every one spoke of the hard conditions as temporary. In every mind the future was bright with promise. Throughout the whole Mid-American country, in Ohio, Northern Indiana and Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa a hopeful spirit prevailed. In every breast hope fought a successful war with poverty and discouragement. Optimism got into the blood of the children and later led to the same kind of hopeful courageous development of the whole western country. The sons and daughters of these hardy people no doubt had their minds too steadily fixed on the problem of the paying off of mortgages and getting on in the world, but there was courage in them. If they, with the frugal and sometimes niggardly New Englanders from whom they were sprung, have given modern American life a too material flavor, they have at least created a land in which a less determinedly materialistic people may in their turn live in comfort.

This is a book of broad generalisations, of sweeping statements, of attempts to plumb the broad changes in the white American psyche during the rise of the industrial age. We learned about it in school as the gilded age, the time of the robber barons and railroad giants. It describes a man who I struggle to imagine now, though I’d never deny the possibility of his existence. Someone so isolated from his fellow men he doesn’t know how to talk to them, doesn’t know the birds and the bees, doesn’t know anything we might read in books or papers, doesn’t understand relationships of any kind. He wanders in a sad isolation, wondering at the strange human beings around him.

This was part of my Chicago reading, what the city meant for this great metropolis, how it connected to the people of the countryside and the towns that filled it. Here is what this simple lad up from riverbank animal-like stupor thought of his few hours in the big city:

In the spring of the first year of his wandering he passed through the city of Chicago and spent two hours there, going in and out at the same railroad station.

He was not tempted to become a city man. The huge commercial city at the foot of Lake Michigan, because of its commanding position in the very center of a vast farming empire, had already become gigantic. He never forgot the two hours he spent standing in the station in the heart of the city and walking in the street adjoining the station. It was evening when he came into the roaring, clanging place. On the long wide plains west of the city he saw farmers at work with their spring plowing as the train went flying along. Presently the farms grew small and the whole prairie dotted with towns. In these the train did not stop but ran into a crowded network of streets filled with multitudes of people. When he got into the big dark station Hugh saw thousands of people rushing about like disturbed insects. Unnumbered thousands of people were going out of the city at the end of their day of work and trains waited to take them to towns on the prairies. They came in droves, hurrying along like distraught cattle, over a bridge and into the station. The in-bound crowds that had alighted from through trains coming from cities of the East and West climbed up a stairway to the street, and those that were out-bound tried to descend by the same stairway and at the same time. The result was a whirling churning mass of humanity. Every one pushed and crowded his way along. Men swore, women grew angry, and children cried. Near the doorway that opened into the street a long line of cab drivers shouted and roared.

Hugh looked at the people who were whirled along past him, and shivered with the nameless fear of multitudes, common to country boys in the city…. They came in waves as water washes along a beach during a storm. Hugh had a feeling that if he were by some chance to get caught in the crowd he would be swept away into some unknown and terrible place.

Hugh doesn’t understand it, flees it.  But this is a time when small towns have their hopes and dreams of greatness too. This book is as much a biography of their change as it of the inventor Hugh, who builds machines, helps create the new age, makes a fortune. This is what they were for a while, before the industrial age:

In even the smallest of the towns, inhabited only by farm laborers, a quaint interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence. The schoolmaster and the country lawyer read Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” and Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” They discussed these books with their fellows. There was a feeling, ill expressed, that America had something real and spiritual to offer to the rest of the world. Workmen talked to each other of the new tricks of their trades, and after hours of discussion of some new way to cultivate corn, shape a horseshoe or build a barn, spoke of God and his intent concerning man. Long drawn out discussions of religious beliefs and the political destiny of America were carried on.

Genocide is half way completed, swathes of land are clear and ripe for development.

In all the towns of mid-western America it was a time of waiting. The country having been cleared and the Indians driven away into a vast distant place spoken of vaguely as the West, the Civil War having been fought and won, and there being no great national problems that touched closely their lives, the minds of men were turned in upon themselves. The soul and its destiny was spoken of openly on the streets… Every one had something to say. Even Charley Mook, who dug ditches, who stuttered so that not a half dozen people in town could understand him, expressed his opinion.

There is such a curious commentary on the need for homogeneity, for safety, for sameness and security so that people can open up and become philosophers:

Within the invisible circle and under the great roof every one knew his neighbor and was known to him. Strangers did not come and go swiftly and mysteriously and there was no constant and confusing roar of machinery and of new projects afoot. For the moment mankind seemed about to take time to try to understand itself.

There is a similar prejudice against foreigners, who are just even more strange strangers I suppose:

Like the other people of Bidwell, Hugh did not like to see foreigners about. He did not understand them and when he saw them going about the streets in groups, was a little afraid. It was a man’s duty, he thought, to look as much as possible like all his fellow men, to lose himself in the crowds, and these fellows did not look like other men. They loved color, and as they talked they made rapid gestures with their hands.

And in this white utopia still aware of hard work and just how hard life can be tied to the soil and struggle, still moving on rural time not city time, still not convinced in the universal belief that profit is the only thing that matters — in this brief time, philosophy begins to flourish:

The judge, an ex-politician from the city of New York who had been involved in some affair that made it uncomfortable for him to return to live in that city, grew prophetic and philosophic after he came to live in Bidwell. In spite of the doubt every one felt concerning his past, he was something of a scholar and a reader of books, and won respect by his apparent wisdom. “Well, there’s going to be a new war here,” he said. “It won’t be like the Civil War, just shooting off guns and killing peoples’ bodies. At first it’s going to be a war between individuals to see to what class a man must belong; then it is going to be a long, silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get. It’ll be the worst war of all.”

This is just one of the men, some of the thoughts burgeoning. But it is already doomed to a short life by progress itself. I haven’t read such sweeping statements as this book contains since Victor Hugo, but the action sections aren’t nearly as good.

I still find myself fascinated by this very particular casting of myth:

A new force that was being born into American life and into life everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying individualistic life. The new force stirred and aroused the people. It met a need that was universal. It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air, to change the entire face of the world in which men lived. Already the giant that was to be king in the place of old kings was calling his servants and his armies to serve him. He used the methods of old kings and promised his followers booty and gain. Everywhere he went unchallenged, surveying the land, raising a new class of men to positions of power. Railroads had already been pushed out across the plains; great coal fields from which was to be taken food to warm the blood in the body of the giant were being opened up; iron fields were being discovered; the roar and clatter of the breathing of the terrible new thing, half hideous, half beautiful in its possibilities, that was for so long to drown the voices and confuse the thinking of men, was heard not only in the towns but even in lonely farm houses, where its willing servants, the newspapers and magazines, had begun to circulate in ever increasing numbers. At the town of Gibsonville, near Bidwell, Ohio, and at Lima and Finley, Ohio, oil and gas fields were discovered. At Cleveland, Ohio, a precise, definite-minded man named Rockefeller bought and sold oil. From the first he served the new thing well and he soon found others to serve with him. The Morgans, Fricks, Goulds, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, servants of the new king, princes of the new faith, merchants all, a new kind of rulers of men, defied the world-old law of class that puts the merchant below the craftsman, and added to the confusion of men by taking on the air of creators. They were merchants glorified and dealt in giant things, in the lives of men and in mines, forests, oil and gas fields, factories, and railroads.

And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order.

Ah, the passing of poetry. The passing of men of true greatness, rather than men made by their publicists and their ability to make money. It didn’t have to be like this, for there is the special kind of man like Hugh, the inventor who does not care for money:

All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is impersonal, useful, and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls. His name is shouted and is carried by the wind into the tiny inclosure in which other men live and in which they are for the most part absorbed in doing some petty task for the furtherance of their own comfort. Men and women stop their complaining about the unfairness and inequality of life and wonder about the man whose name they have heard.

There is everything such men achieve  — Anderson signals a moment when the invention of new machinery lightens the terrible burden of toil and allows men to philosophise:

Hugh’s machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got a little into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.

This is the moment we perhaps could have clung to. Instead money rather than dreams and the stars became what mattered. This is the fuel for the move of America’s centre from the countryside to the city, a new breed of mice rather than men:

Modern men and women who live in industrial cities are like mice that have come out of the fields to live in houses that do not belong to them. They live within the dark walls of the houses where only a dim light penetrates, and so many have come that they grow thin and haggard with the constant toil of getting food and warmth. Behind the walls the mice scamper about in droves, and there is much squealing and chattering. Now and then a bold mouse stands upon his hind legs and addresses the others. He declares he will force his way through the walls and conquer the gods who have built the house. “I will kill them,” he declares. “The mice shall rule. You shall live in the light and the warmth. There shall be food for all and no one shall go hungry.”

The little mice, gathered in the darkness out of sight in the great houses, squeal with delight. After a time when nothing happens they become sad and depressed. Their minds go back to the time when they lived in the fields, but they do not go out of the walls of the houses, because long living in droves has made them afraid of the silence of long nights and the emptiness of skies. In the houses giant children are being reared. When the children fight and scream in the houses and in the streets, the dark spaces between the walls rumble with strange and appalling noises.

It is the passing of the craftsman, content to do his work well, to earn enough to live on. This is embodied by Joe the old harness maker, mocked and eventually pushed into the corner by his young apprentice Jim, who tells him:

“Can’t you understand what you’re up against? The factories are bound to win. For why? Look here, there can’t any one but some old moss-back who has worked around horses all his life tell the difference between hand- and machine-sewed harness. The machine-made can be sold cheaper. It looks all right and the factories are able to put on a lot of do-dads. That catches the young fellows. It’s good business. Quick sales and profits, that’s the story.”

The arrival of the heavy-handed metaphor of Joe killing Jim in a frenzy without making any change in the system or with the remotest change for the better in his own system doesn’t come as much surprise.

There is not much depth in any of the men, just a whole lot of confusion and isolation, with a dash of poetry perhaps. There are some truly egregious imaginings of women, especially in an attempt to enter the interior emotions of Clara:

There was something back of her desire for a man. She wanted something more than caresses. There was a creative impulse in her that could not function until she had been made love to by a man. The man she wanted was but an instrument she sought in order that she might fulfill herself. Several times during those evenings in the presence of the two men, who talked only of making money out of the products of another man’s mind, she almost forced her mind out into a concrete thought concerning women, and then it became again befogged.

She has a deep friendship with a woman in the big city before returning to her hometown — and it’s curious this friendship with Kate Chancellor who is clearly a lesbian, encouraging Clara to think herself equal of any man, to face life without one. Clearly, she failed, though it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. The descriptions of Clara are confusing, in that she doesn’t seem at all worth the effort.

Clara grew tired of thinking, and listened to the talk. The name of Hugh McVey played through the persistent conversation like a refrain. It became fixed in her mind. The inventor was not married. By the social system under which she lived that and that only made him a possibility for her purposes.

Ah, you can see this is trying to be a critique of the social system. It notes that:

She was very hungry for love, but might have got that from another woman. Kate Chancellor would have loved her.

This all reaffirms the ‘natural’ need for a man, for children. How this is strangely tied in to the changing times (I don’t think this means anything more, but maybe it does)

The woman at the window, like every one else in her town and in all the towns of the mid-western country, became touched with the idea of the romance of industry.

That and procreation. The romance of industry and the myth of the great man, not interest in his actual ideas or any sense of who he actually is, or the benefits that could come to others through his work. It is all very sad.

Her father was a schemer; he had even schemed to get her married, perhaps to further his own plans. In reality his schemes were so ineffective that she did not need to be angry with him. There was but one man of them all who was not a schemer. Hugh was what she wanted to be. He was a creative force. In his hands dead inanimate things became creative forces. He was what she wanted not herself but perhaps a son, to be. The thought, at last definitely expressed, startled Clara, and she arose from the chair by the window and prepared to go to bed. Something within her body ached, but she did not allow herself to pursue further the thoughts she had been having.

See?  All about procreation. No wonder poor Kate had no chance, with just an ability to talk and think and laugh. To fight. She is a curious figure and I begin to wonder if this post shouldn’t have been all about her instead. But she is too much a caricature, even if a surprising one to find here.

I found the myths rather fascinating, however, all in all. And there are moments I liked. So I will end with one of them:

He looked at the towns and wanted light and color to play over them as they played over the stones, and when that did not happen, his mind, filled with strange new hungers engendered by the disease of thinking, made up words over which lights played. “The gods have scattered towns over the flat lands,” his mind had said, as he sat in the smoking car of the train, and the phrase came back to him later, as he sat in the darkness on the log with his head held in his hands. It was a good phrase and lights could play over it as they played over the colored stones…

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The Astronomer Caroline Herschel

indexWe have a couple of times wandered down through the countryside from Bristol to Bath, and so we found the Herschel Museum, tucked down a little street. I had heard of Sir William Herschel vaguely, but was happier to find out about the life of his sister, Caroline. And I bought this book.

Put together by her niece Mary Herschel in 1878, it is lovely but I definitely feel it is time for a new appraisal. Caroline’s own memoirs which she wrote are here cut up, put into context, probably somewhat expunged — though it is had to tell through the veil of both women’s intense sense of propriety. The letters are brilliant though, and give a wonderful sense of Caroline as well as how much she was loved and admired by others, particularly her nephew Sir John Herschel, who followed in the footsteps of her brother William.

Caroline lived for an extraordinarily long time, 1750-1848. She was in a position to do astronomical observations for only a portion of this time, but she found seven comets, did loads of work, was first woman to receive a medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, and actually made an honorary member of the Society with Mary Somerville in 1835.

Along with her own accomplishments, the book offers a fascinating window on the lives and limitations placed upon women in this period. She had typhus at a young age, so only grew to 4’3″. This explains the assumption that she would never marry, and that her role would be to always and forever take care of other people’s families. She was deeply imprinted by her mothers’ ideas of what would best fit her for this life fated for her:

My father wished to give me something like a polished education, but my mother was particularly determined that it should be a rough, but at the same time a useful one… I could not help thinking but that she had cause of wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family; for it was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning. (20)

This was not in fact her fate, but always there is the sense that she is still, to some extent, living within its boundaries. She left Hanover in 1772, William persuading her mother to let her go and become his assistant in Bath. In 1782 he was appointed the King’s Astronomer (for a large cut in pay, and a lot of showing royals the stars), moved to Slough. She went with him.

While she rarely complains or talks about herself at all, she does at one point write

In short, I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my endeavours at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood. (31)

She tried to educate herself. But is always forced to remain conscious of her own lack of education, and her complete dependence upon others. It is a terrible thing, like a straightjacket which she must live within. This despite her wonderful singing voice and musical abilities, as well as her intelligence and determination.

Alexander was obliged to return to Bath…till now I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the prospect of making myself independent by becoming (with a little more uninterrupted application) a useful member of the musical profession. But besides that my brother William would have been very much at a loss for my assistance, I had not spirit enough to throw myself on the public after losing his protection. (51)

Still, she throws herself into the business of astronomy to help her brother — an uncomfortable business with long cold nights and a house more like a workshop and a lot of accidents. It is unclear from her memoirs whether this is indeed the intellectual endeavor she would have chosen to dedicate her life to if she were free to make her own choice, but once embarked upon it, she did not look back. A life of some adventure, really, though much tedium and hard work:

As soon as the season for the concerts was over, and the mould &c., in readiness, a day was set apart for casting, and the metal was in the furnace, but unfortunately it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers and the caster with his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which out to have been taken up) flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. (44)

I seem to have lost my photos from the museum, all but one. It is quite wonderful though consisting of only a handful of rooms. You can still see these cracked floor stones:

IMG_2869One thing that struck me from her words was the demanding nature, and lack of generosity of the King. I read the memoirs of Fanny Burney long ago, and remember similar surprise at the monotony, and often the level of penury, suffered by many at court who existed to wait upon royalty’s pleasure. Caroline describes in at least one letter an enjoyable evening spent in by then Madame d’Arbley’s company, and that made me happy. However, after numerous people put pressure on him, King I-forgot-which-one-it-was slowly increased the money allowed to William for building telescopes (marvelous, enormous telescopes) and in 1787, finally recognised the work of Caroline:

A salary of fifty pounds a year was also settled on me as an assistant to my brother, and in October I received twelve pounds ten, being the first quarterly payment of my salary, and the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind…Nothing but bankruptcy had ll the while been running through my silly head (75-76)

She is a funny mix of devotion to her brother, deprecation of her own abilities, and acknowledgement of women’s uncertain position in the world. She writes many years later on receiving the medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, in a letter to her nephew dated August 21, 1828:

What you tell me in the short note dated May 24th…has completely put me out of humour with the same; for to say the truth, I felt from the first more shocked than gratified by that singular distinction, for I know well how dangerous it is for women to draw to much notice on themselves. (231)

I think that last sentence explained an immense amount of her letters and the choices made in her memoir to me.

That last sentence embodies everything that women have been fighting for centuries. When her brother marries and promptly turfs her out of their home, it only highlights the injustice of a society unable to value women except as mothers or wives…she overcomes it all.

She is both observant and intelligent and wise, however much some of her deprecation grates from time to time on my modern ears. Understandings like this shine clear, in her response to the publishing of her index to Flamsteed’s Observations (written from Slough, Sept 1798):

But your having thought it worthy of the press has flattered my vanity not a little. You see, sir, I do own myself to be vain, because I would not wish to be singular; and was there ever a woman without vanity? Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition. (96)

There are glints of humour, like this one, in the form of advice to her Nephew John, 25 October 1831:

But do not observe too much in cold weather. Write rather books to make folks stare at your profound knowledge…. (249)

So much of her memories and her letters has to do with being ill, long bouts of sickness, I am sure exacerbated by working through the nights in cold and damp. She moved back to Hanover after her brother’s death, only to be deeply disillusioned by the lack of intellectual society and the terrible mistreatment by her own family. She was no longer able to search for stars, only work on her indexes. Yet she was stuck, and forced to make the best of it.

I loved that this included some of the letters written to her, for they show most beautifully the esteem in which she is held, and her intelligence and humour and the expectation she will share in scientific excitement and seeking of knowledge. There are passages like this one:

I found my aunt wonderfully well and very nicely and comfortably lodged, and we have since been on the full trot. She runs about the town with me and skips up her two flights of stairs as light and fresh at least as some folks I could name who are not a fourth part of her age …. In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite “fresh and funny” at ten or eleven, p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! To the great delight of all who see her ….

There are a few other interesting passages, like this one from Dr Maskelyne writing to Miss Caroline Herschel , verifying her discovery of a comet, 27 December 1788:

Let us hope the best, and that it is approaching the earth to please and instruct us, and not to destroy us, for true astronomers have no fears of that kind. (81)

This from Caroline writing to her nephew John, 1822

I wish you would let me know if any of the works of Schelling are known in England? Of him it is said that his philosophy is entirely new, and beyond all what goes before, and so profound, that nobody here can understand him, &c.

Philosophy hasn’t much changed I don’t think.

On April 23, 1835 alluding to some misdeeds of Newtons…what news emerged then, I wonder to cast him into disrepute? News we have since forgotten? After relating her happiness at becoming a member of the Royal Astronomical Society ‘our Society, of which I am now a fellow!’, she goes on to write:

I lament very much, in common with every friend of science, that Newton’s name is mixed up with transactions that show him in a diffeent light from that in which we have generally received his character. (277)

All in all this is a fascinating little book, but I would love to see Caroline Herschel become better known and better studied.

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Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…

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The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.

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Salford in Love on the Dole

Love on the Dole Walter GreenwoodLove on the Dole (1933) might be the last depressing, worthy, important account of the toll and misery of working class poverty I read. Every now and then I suffer flashes of panic that I myself will fall back into it, die poor and struggling. Reading this really doesn’t help, and every year older I get the more deeply existential this fear becomes. Especially as I am now too old to escape, like Sal, through becoming a kept woman and making the most of that to help myself and my family.

So thought I’d make the most of this book. But though 1933 is several decades along, it’s descriptions are depressingly, distressingly similar to the East End’s Mean Streets described by Arthur Morrison,  Lambeth’s slums from Reeves’ A Pound a Week or Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth. Things have become a little better from the abject poverty of Manchester in the 1850s described by Engels in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, but while bodies hold together survive a little longer, the soul is still crushed.

They call this part ‘Hanky Park’. It is that district opposite the parish church of Pendleton, one of the many industrial townships comprising the Two Cities. In the early nineteenth century Hanky Park was part of the grounds of a wealthy lady’s mansion; at least, so say the old maps in the Salford Town Hall. The district takes its names from a sloping street, Hankinson Street, whose pavements, much worn and very narrow, have been polished by the traffic of boots and clogs of many generations. On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, ‘crofts’, as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill.

The doorsteps and windowsills of the houses are worn hollow. Once a week, sometimes twice, the women clean them with brown or white rubbing stone…Some women there are whose lives are dedicated to an everlasting battle with the invincible forces of soot and grime. (11)

Hanky Park has emerged from the industrial revolution, the modern upheaval of everything driven by capitalist industry and the transformation of stately homes and country fields into factories and ugly homes for the workers they need to work in them. Greenwood writes:

Trafford Park is a modern miracle. Thirty years ago it was the country seat of a family whose line goes back to the ancient British kings and whose name the area retains.Thirty years ago its woodlands were chopped down to clear the way fro commerce and to provide soles for Lancashire clogs; thirty years ago the lawns, lately gay with marquees, awnings and fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, were obliterated. The Hall still stands though it now houses only dust and memories and echoes. And the twin lions surmounting either side the wide flight of steps now survey…a double railway track only six yards away, and, where the drives once wound their serpentine paths through the woods, the fungus of modern industry, huge engineering shops, flour mills, timber yards, oil refineries, automobile works, repositories for bonded merchandise, choke and foul the prospect….

A Five Year Plan thirty years ahead of the Russian. Yesterday the country seat of an aristocrat, today the rowdy seat of commerce. Revolution! and not a drop of blood spilt or a shot fired! (158)

This is of course, novel as call to conscience, call to action. There’s little room here for the humour, the humanity that got people through these conditions. I’d happily read more of those, like Mord Em’ly, or oral histories of these times where grinding poverty can’t efface the cheer and character of everyone. Still, there are too many familiar elements to deny or diminish the power of this reality — the reason for my panics after all:

In the staring gas light, the women, throwing back their shawls from their dishevelled hair revealed faces which, though dissimilar in features, had a similarity of expression common, typical, of all the married women around and about; their badge of marriage, as it were. The vivacity of their virgin days was with their virgin days, gone; a married woman could be distinguished from a single by a glance at her facial expression. Marriage scored on their faces a kind of preoccupied, faded, lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by some problem. As they were. How to get a shilling, and, when obtained, how to make it do the work of two. Though it was not so much a problem as a whole-time occupation to which no salary was attached, not to mention the sideline of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards. (31)

I do like how this almost journalistically portrays the changing times, the new fashions, the weekly routines of labour and leisure of both men and women.

Clatter of clogs and shoes; chatter of many loud voices; bursts of laughter. Hundreds of girl operatives and women from the adjacent cotton mills marching home to dinner arm in arm, two, three, four and five abreast. They filled the narrow pavements and spread into the roadway.

A generation ago all would have been wearing clogs, shawls, tight bodices, ample skirts and home-knitted, black wool stocking. A few still held to the picturesque clogs and shawls of yesterday, but the majority represented modernity: cheap artificial silk stockings, cheap short-skirted frocks, cheap coats, cheap shoes, crimped hair, powder and rouge; five and a half days weekly in a spinning mill of weaving shed, a threepenny dance of a Saturday night, a Sunday afternoon parade on the erstwhile aristocratic Eccles Old Road which incloses the public park, then work again, until they married when picture theatres became luxuries and Saturday dances, Sunday parades and cheap finery ceased altogether. (42)

I like how it acknowledges the fascinations of these new factories as young Harry burns to become more than just a messenger:

Machines! MACHINES! Lovely, beautiful word! (69)

But still it describes a system of labour that guarantees steady work at lowered wages to women and children, and lays off men to ensure they do not have to pay the higher wages their training (and the simple fact of being men in this sexist world) entitles them to. It leaves them to hang about street corners and pubs and wait in queues for the dole until they are kicked off it through the new and now infamous means test. A government seal on an acceptable level of utmost misery. In this book at least (much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), none of them asking the whys or fighting back except for one. Socialism and struggle showing him glimpses of a better life and how to get there.

He dies.

Worried about whether you have in fact escaped poverty? This is what you need:

That dirty hovel, home? Where else? In all the wide world, of all the sweet dreams and fond imaginings of such homes as were writ or projected at the pictures, of them all, hers was that in North Street.

Dully, insistently, crushing came the realisation that there was no escape, save in dreams. All was a tangle; reality was too hideous to look upon: it could not be shrouded or titivated for long by the reading of cheap novelettes or the spectacle of films of spacious lives. They were only opiates and left a keener edge on hunger, made more loathsome reality’s sores. (65)

Then there is this passage, which describes the mix of industry, housing and government offices that marked poor urban areas, reduces its residents to animals, and then more or less compares them to the animals heading in great bewilderment to the slaughterhouse.

An erstwhile reformatory school for erring boys, an ugly, barrack-like building, serves as one of the Two Cities’ labour exchanges. Hemmed in on three sides by slums, tenements and doss houses, the remaining side stares at the gas works and a cattle-loading mound, into, and out of which, bleating sheep, cows and bulls, their eyes rolling, their parched tongues lolling, are driven by loutish men and cowed dogs. And the slum children, seeing in the inoffensive creatures a means to exercise their own animal instincts, come out of their dens armed with whips and sticks and stones to belabour the animals as they pass, meanwhile indulging in the most hideous inhuman screams, shouts and howls such as occasions horror in the mind of a sympathetic observer and, doubtless, terrified bewilderment on the parts of the doomed beasts as they, starting under whip, stick and stone, run blindly along the dinning unfamiliar streets finally to find themselves packed, suffocatingly, in wretched cattle trucks.

A high wall, enclosing an asphalt yard, ran round the building. On it was scrawled in chalk, and in letters a foot high: ‘Unemployed Mass Meeting Today 3 o’clock.’ The handiwork of Communists five or six weeks ago. (153)

If only the unemployed had come in their masses.

The Hardcastles escape from this fate to some extent — but the moral of that escape is clear. I have great admiration for Sal, after her socialist love and hope dies of consumption she stares her fate in the face (with the help of the older and wiser Mrs Bull). To escape it she becomes a hard-headed woman of business, using her beauty to obtain security as her labour cannot do it for it her. I like that the novel is not sentimental and does not seem to judge her harshly for this. Simply points it out to a world that will, in the hopes that such a fall from grace might spur action where nothing else has.

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